Political incivility has become a hot topic this week after the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, as an act of protest against the Trump administration’s policies. After the California Democrat Maxine Waters called for more pushback against Trump officials to let them know they were “not welcome anymore,” President Trump lashed out at Waters, whom he called an “extraordinarily low IQ” person, for promoting such conduct.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, anti-war activists decided to use every tool at their disposal to pressure Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to bring an end to the Vietnam War, which was costing thousands of American and Vietnamese lives every week. Today’s protesters appear to be following a similar template for their activism. But then, as now, the politics of uncivil protest proved complicated. In the short term, the use of confrontational and aggressive tactics by protesters can cause a political backlash and inspire some fellow travelers to enter into unacceptable and dangerous territory. But in the long run, uncivil protest has sometimes been the only way to move public debate in the right direction and to put pressure on elected officials to change their ways.
The activists of the 1960s believed that continuing to send U.S. troops into Southeast Asia to defeat the communists was a massive mistake. Johnson, they said, had committed U.S. troops to a civil war that had little to do with the global struggle between the U.S. and the Soviets or China. As the anti-war protests intensified in 1965 and 1966, there was little evidence that Johnson was listening. Indeed, he privately told an adviser: “Don’t pay attention to what those little shits on the campuses do. The great beast is the reactionary element in the country.”
Feeling frustrated and ignored, student activists were inspired by a speech delivered by the activist Mario Savio, who told fellow students at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
As the U.S. dove deeper into the quagmire, student activists continued to indicate to the people who ran the machine that they were not happy. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to Harvard University on November 7, 1966, he intended to speak with a group of students from the Kennedy Institute’s honorary-associates program. But the big news came when he walked out of Quincy House in the late afternoon to find about 100 protesters from the Students for a Democratic Society screaming at him and demanding that he debate the young magazine editor Robert Scheer. His student escort, the future-Representative Barney Frank, was not prepared for this kind of clash. “Don’t listen to him,” one student yelled out, “He’s killing the people of Vietnam! He doesn’t even have the right to speak!” Others called him a “murderer” and a “fascist.”
The students would not let McNamara finish a single sentence. The confrontation became even more “uncivil” when some of the SDS activists surrounded the front and back of the university police car and didn’t allow it to go down Mill Street. A shocked McNamara sat down on the hood of another car parked nearby and agreed to speak for five minutes. He blasted the students, saying that he too was involved in campus politics when he had been a student at Berkeley, but he was “tougher and more courteous.” When the conversation started to become even more heated, the Kennedy Institute’s Graham Allison drove a different car as a decoy while the campus police escorted McNamara through the steam tunnels that connected the buildings so that he could join a seminar being taught by Henry Kissinger. Soon after, Harvard College issued an apology for the “discourteous” way in which the students treated McNamara. While many of the students signed a letter of apology, the leaders of SDS rejected this act of contrition. “An architect of a controversial policy has a duty to confront criticism of that policy in public, especially when the Johnson administration has continuously evaded the criticism.” These kinds of encounters continued. When McNamara spoke at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in February 1967, student protesters held up signs that said: “Students Can’t Abide McNamara’s Genocide!” By April, McNamara and other Cabinet officials were cutting down on their public appearances because these kinds of clashes had become so common.
The protests continued to intensify in 1967, as the number of American troops in Vietnam peaked at 450,000. A Catholic priest named Philip Berrigan made his point about the war by pouring blood (mostly from ducks, some of his own) on draft records in a Selective Service office in Baltimore. One activist confronted Johnson with a sign that read: “LBJ, Pull Out Like Your Father Should Have Done!” Student protesters would taunt the president by chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ how many kids did you kill today?”
When Democrats convened at their party convention in Chicago in August 1968, thousands of protesters gathered in Grant Park to make their voices heard by party leaders and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had become the nominee after Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection. The protesters were not tame. The activists who arrived in Chicago, as one later recalled, “were the children of the Democratic Party … We expected nothing from Republicans. We expected everything from Democrats.” The Youth International Party, one of the groups heading the protests, announced that they would nominate a pig, the epithet often applied to police and politicians, to run against Humphrey. The Yippies threatened to dump LSD into the city water and used the most outlandish language possible when speaking to reporters about the leaders of the Democratic Party. After the police violently attacked the protesters under the direction of Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, some marched with Humphrey’s initials—HHH—fashioned into a logo that looked like barbed wire. The protesters had nothing nice to say about Johnson.
During the fall, students continually heckled Humphrey at almost every appearance. Humphrey believed that they would cost him the election. When one demonstrator in Seattle shouted at him in the middle of a speech that he should be brought before a United National Court to be on trial for having supported the war, an angry Humphrey lashed back: “Now you have had equal time—shut up!” Another yelled out “Racist! Racist!” The nominee even went so far as to tell the CBS reporter Roger Mudd that the violence in Chicago had been the fault of the protesters, not the police: “The obscenity, the profanity, the filth that was uttered night after night in front of the hotels was an insult to every woman, every mother, every daughter, indeed every human being, the kind of language that no one would tolerate at all.” (Realizing the comment was a mistake, Humphrey walked it back within 24 hours). Although their focus remained on the Democratic ticket, who these leftist activists believed betrayed them, they also showed up at Republican events and at rallies for third-party candidate George Wallace.
The students did not let up after Richard Nixon was president. Although the president began the process of Vietnamization, pulling U.S. troops out of the conflict, he undertook a massive bombing campaign and a secret invasion of Cambodia. It seemed the war would never end. When the National Guard killed four students in a protest at Kent State University in May 1970, protests erupted all around the nation. “The very fabric of government was falling apart,” then-National-Security Adviser Henry Kissinger lamented. “The Executive Branch is shell-shocked. After all, their children and their friends’ children took part in the demonstrations.” Almost one year after the Kent State massacre, there were two solid weeks of anti-war protests, including student sit-ins and die-ins at government offices like the Justice Department and Selective Service Administration. Twenty-five thousand people calling themselves the Mayday Tribe later attempted to bring the entire government to a halt. “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we will stop the government,” their posters warned. The plan was to peacefully use their bodies to block government employees and their automobiles, preventing workers from getting to their jobs. Having obtained advance knowledge of the plan, the Nixon administration, with the help of the National Guard as well as Army and Marine troops, was able to crack down on the protests before they had much effect.
At times, these confrontational protests verged over into overt violence. Some members of a group that was an outgrowth of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, turned to outright violence to make their opposition known. Some engaged in bombings of university and government buildings that were meant to provoke but caused immense physical destruction. Three members of the Weathermen were killed on March 6, 1970, in New York City while building a bomb.
Nor was it easy for the protesters to control the direction of politics. Even as the anti-war movement succeeded in spreading opposition to the war and dramatizing the extent of opposition to what American troops were doing in Vietnam, it also provoked a backlash. Barney Frank came to rue inviting McNamara to Harvard, not because he had given him a platform to speak, but for the political damage he felt the protesters had done to Democratic prospects in the 1966 election, where their losses “did nothing to retard the war effort but did put an end to further progress on the social and economic fronts.” He concluded that the growing popularity of such tactics among young people on the left had provoked an equal and opposite reaction among older white voters, splitting the “coalition for stronger government action.”
Nixon capitalized on that split in his 1968 campaign. He pointed to the protesters as evidence of how far off-center the left had gone and how dangerous the anti-war movement had become to the nation. Appealing to the “Silent Majority” of “non-shouters” and “non-demonstrators,” Nixon promised to restore law and order. The nation elected him as president over Humphrey, beginning a long shift to the right in national politics.
Nonetheless, most historians still credit the anti-war movement as the major force that revealed to the public the horrendous consequences of Vietnam, and which kept up the drumbeat of opposition when many politicians and reporters accepted the war. The movement was the reason more members of Congress finally stood up to the presidents. In the end, the anti-war movement was critical to the decision in 1973 that ultimately brought an end to the war and for decades after made sure that the government did not quickly send large numbers of ground troops into a major conflict. The tactics that they used were far less “civil” than anything that President Trump’s opponents have done thus far, yet that lack of civility was also integral to their effectiveness. Without dramatic tactics, they would not have gained as much attention.
The reason that the president’s opponents are taking steps such as refusing to serve a member of the administration food or shouting out their feelings during personal encounters is because they believe the administration has undertaken policies that are brutal, misguided, and fundamentally antithetical to the values of the nation. Indeed, they feel that the biggest source of incivility right now is the president himself. For Trump’s opponents, his presidency is the new Vietnam. That’s why some are starting to take to the streets and doing what they believe is necessary—within the boundaries of the law—to change the course of history.